It’s never a good omen when a book review starts with a caveat but alas, I am doing just that. In fact, having never been one to dwell in the lower echelons of omendom, I’m making two.
The first is relatively benign, though potentially embarrassing in Canadian literature and book club circles. I had no idea who Susan Juby is based on name recognition, or lack thereof, alone. Upon embarking on my Leacock Medal challenge I had assumed she was a new up and comer, much like Sarah Mian, another of the shortlisted three. When I cracked open Republic of Dirt and read the author bio I realized that a newcomer Susan was not and in fact I had heard of her work several years previously, though I had not read any of it personally. When the Alice, I Think trilogy became somewhat of a sensation my extended family was quite interested since an uncle of mine is a longtime resident of Smithers, British Columbia, the setting of the books.
The second has more potential to impact the reception of my review. I had no idea Republic of Dirt was a sequel. As such, due to time constraints (sorry, but I do attempt to be a genuine homemaker), I read the third of the Leacock Medal finalists as a standalone novel. In retrospect, I believe I was missing some key back story for the main characters of Republic of Dirt and it likely coloured my enjoyment of the book. Not that any nominee for an award should be judged in tandem with its predecessor, but recognition of and familiarity with the context from which a work springs seems relevant.
Okay, now that my ass-covering is complete, let’s get to the actual review. As mentioned, Republic of Dirt is the sequel to Susan Juby’s 2012 Leacock Medal shortlisted The Woefield Poultry Collective. My first impression, after about fifty pages, was that this would be the most genuinely funny and directly comedic novel of the three finalists. The remaining three hundred and fifty pages proved that impression woefully inaccurate. It’s funny and silly, sure, but it also delves into some darkness not too unlike Sarah Mian’s When The Saints. I wasn’t expecting this turn and it certainly made my evaluation of this novel much more difficult.
Republic of Dirt is the story of an oddball foursome of farmers, all unrelated and all from wildly different backgrounds, living together on Woefield Farm. Due to an unfortunate event at a parent-teacher interview involving a mule, the youngest of the four, Sarah is removed from the farm and returned to her parents to keep her “safe”. The other three, Prudence, Seth, and Earl are heartbroken and set about trying to earn Sarah’s return to the farm. Sarah, I should mention, is eleven. How an eleven year old ended up living on a farm with three single adults is the most glaring reason I mentioned caveat number two above. I suspect this very integral piece of back story can be found in the first Woefield novel which I have yet to read.
The story is told as an alternating series of first person journal entries from each of the four main characters. Often each character recounts the same events resulting in amusing contrasts as each character’s unique personality interprets said events differently. This is an effective technique and I often found myself anticipating my favourite character’s upcoming passages.
And you will have favourite characters, or more accurately, least favourite characters. I personally found Prudence, the owner of Woefield Farm thanks to an inheritance, to be unappealing. She wasn’t a horrible person by any means, but her stubborn allegiance to alternative medicines really irked me. This is no doubt a personal bias and I recognize that. Other readers will see her as a hero while still others will just find her kindhearted and her medical plight humorous. I just found her annoying and mostly inconsequential for large portions of the book.
On the other hand, Seth and Earl were the comedic stars of Republic of Dirt. Seth, a young, heavy metal loving high school dropout and Earl, a cantankerous, elderly local provide most of the comedy. Both know how to turn a folksy phrase and provide wonderful commentary on the events occurring at Woefield Farm. Most of my audible laughs came courtesy of these two.
Sarah, the young focus of the book is also likable despite being yet another example of the popular “young but brilliant girl with a horrible family life” trope found in so many young adult books. I enjoyed this character but just didn’t find her terribly unique, though her love of chicken husbandry sure had me chuckling thanks to a certain aunt of mine who I suspect is Sarah’s future self.
There is one issue I must chastise because hey, who among us is tired of political correctness, really. That is the subplot involving Seth and a former school drama teacher. These two had an inappropriate relationship when Seth was in school that led to him dropping out and becoming an alcoholic. In Republic of Dirt, the drama teacher returns and attempts to lure Seth back into a relationship that will finally come to sexual fruition. This scenario is used for comedy regularly throughout the book and ten years ago I’d probably have been laughing right along with it. Now, though, I can’t help but cringe knowing full well that if this was a young woman being pursued and assaulted by a male teacher, the comedy level would be nil. It’s the one double standard that persists and solely harms boys. We think a female teacher having sex with a male student as awesome, worthy of high fives for the boy, and in the case of Republic of Dirt, a source of endless comic fodder. I was a little surprised to see this theme play out in a novel up for a prestigious award, especially one written by a woman.
Okay, I’ll come down off my high horse now, or is that high mule to be book appropriate. Ultimately I enjoyed Republic of Dirt but I didn’t love it. It is most definitely funny and I laughed out loud a few times which is rewarding and a pretty reliable indicator of a book being good. That being said, there was a significant lull in the middle of this book that left me kind of bored. I think it could have been edited down a bit rather than continually emphasizing that Prudence wasn’t her usual self due to illness and Seth and Earl were worried and unsure of what to do without her guidance.
I recommend Republic of Dirt though I only give it 3.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I suspect my rating might have been higher had I read The Woefield Poultry Collective first and had some background to these characters and their plight. This is now on my To Do list.
Still, I’d have to knock the rating down for that ill-advised teacher-student sex subplot which just shouldn’t be “funny” anymore. There may be some unpleasantness in this book such as Sarah’s parents, but the book is otherwise lighthearted and family friendly, shall we say. Had it established itself as a biting satire with dark humour I’d have been more forgiving, but Republic of Dirt is certainly not that. Otherwise, it’s a worthwhile read.